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Monday 13 April 2015

Conservatives: Detour Ahead?

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 17th January 2014

Never were truer words spoken...
The Conservative Party is receiving some much-delayed intensive media scrutiny. What are other media commentators saying?

Let's begin with Gordon Campbell's excellent interview with Colin Craig in Werewolf, an online magazine associated with the Scoop news website.

First, although Campbell didn't raise this, let's note that while Craig denied that his Conservative Party was intending to repeal prostitution law reform, nevertheless his party website has a copy of the parliamentary submission that it made endorsing Ross Robertson's Manukau City Council (Regulating Prostitution in Specified Places) Bill in its publications section on its website, to the Local Government and Environment select committee. So, while he doesn't support the complete repeal of prostitution law reform, his party does seem to support recriminalisation of street sex work.

Refreshingly, Campbell does raise the possibility that history may well repeat itself when it comes to the Conservatives. Will their espousal of militant fundamentalist bully pulpit politics end up alienating people from voting centre-right and cost the Key administration its chance at a third term of office? The Christian Coalition's extremism similarly led to the poisoned chalice that was the short-lived National/New Zealand First coalition under the Bolger and Shipley administrations (1996-1998). And it's good to see a link to my own previous "Conning Auckland" piece about stealth fundamentalist involvement within the Conservative Party's Auckland Council slate this year. Will this alienate social liberal and female voters from supporting the centre-right? Excellent question.

As for his personal fundamentalism, Craig seems to think that if he doesn't go to a specific fundamentalist church, then that disqualifies him from being classed as a fundamentalist. Oh, really? What about Craig's possible membership of "parachurch" organisations such as (say) the Full Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship? That way, he gets away with still being an observant fundamentalist yet not attending church- because his spiritual needs would then therefore be met within the parachurch organisation.

He still regards binding citizens referenda as a bottom line. Good luck with that, Colin.

Furthermore, Craig has made a misleading comment about ex-Kiwi Party involvement in his party. It wasn't just former United Future List MP Larry Baldock, but also Gordon Copeland (another ex-UFNZ List MP), Simonne Dyer (who features in the Conservative Party's Auckland Council candidate list), and their recent Christchurch East by-election candidate, Leighton Baker. Doesn't he remember? This doesn't show active disavowal of the fundamentalist party that the Conservatives absorbed.

And a warning to feminist readers- the Conservatives want to revisit the issue of sabotaging competent minor access to abortion through introducing obstructive legislation that will damage younger women's reproductive and sexual health. So, in other words, anti-abortion legislation isn't off the agenda either. Nor is advocacy of creationist intelligent design propaganda within the educational system.

As for the National Party, his potential partner, he's critical of public/private partnerships and assistance to embattled businesses to avert bankruptcy. This sounds much like the US Tea Party, which also has an anti-bailout position. Added to which, he openly admits that he's comfortable with manipulating the one constituency exemption to MMP's five percent list-only representation rule in his party's favour, be it in East Coast Bays where he seems to want to stand, or in the new Upper Harbour seat where Christine Rankin will now challenge National's Paula Bennett. He seems to favour some degree of venture capital and mentoring for small business establishment and growth, as in Taiwan and South Korea. He fudges questions about raising the age of eligibility for Superannuation to 67, and we're left unclear about what he intends insofar as KiwiSaver is concerned. He's similarly unclear about what he'd do with Working For Families, citing an anecdotal case where it was used to support an individual and his family who gave up work. So where's the evidence that such abuse is widespread apart from what might well be an unrepresentative case?

And the above hazy responses to Campbell's questions about core issues of government fiscal policy suggests one thing quite clearly. The Conservatives are essentially a "clip on" fiscal conservative party, but primarily centred on sectarian religious social conservatism and its narrow, circumscribed set of core issues- abortion, LGBT rights, sex work, parental corporal punishment, censorship policy etc. It makes encouraging noises about charter schools, but then so does the Maxim Institute. Speaking of which, 'clip-on" fiscal conservatism was a charge that was repeatedly levelled at the Maxim Institute during Bruce Logan's period as its executive director (2000-2005). If I were a centre-right political commentator, or affiliated with ACT and United Future, I would respond critically to this lack of clarity around fiscal responsibility and restraint issues.

Meanwhile, in his party newsletter, Colin Craig has stated that he would prefer it if media questions were directed exclusively at the Party Leader and his management team. I'm reminded of far left and far right parties alike that effectively centralise organisational power within the party executive at the cost of productive debate and grassroots democracy, which is quite odd for a party that proclaims its enthusiasm for "binding referenda" in other contexts for allegedly such reasons. Mind you, he could be responding against prior "entryist" organisational takeovers by the defunct neofascist League of Rights in the case of several now defunct New Zealand Christian Right organisations. However, overcentralised authoritarian leadership has its own woes- look at what happened to Christian Heritage after the Graham Capill pedophilia scandal and his consequent conviction and imprisonment. Live with leadership cultism, die when the same cult dissipates. New Zealand First is an identical example, given that it would not exist without Winston Peters and it will probably cease to exist when he either decides to retire, dies in office, or becomes sufficiently infirm and elderly enough to have to end his parliamentary tenure. He has no clear successor.

In the New Zealand Herald, Audrey Young (no relation) downplayed Craig's religious social conservative views about issues like abortion, parental corporal punishment, sex work and homosexuality, in favour of more mainstream public policy questions. He opposes environmental protection in the context of increased oil and mineral exploitation, as well as National and ACT's charter school policies, Labour's female MP parity proposals, the Sky City Convention Centre and Transpacific Free Trade Treaty processes. There may be trouble for the National Party if they rely on support from the Conservatives after the next election later this year, given that they also seem to oppose the Convention Centre and Transpacific Free Trade Treaty.

On the other hand, Tim Watkin downplays the obvious signs of Colin Craig's fundamentalist Christianity, as well as other clues about the actual fundamentalist microparty orientation of the Conservative Party from readily available online sources like Facebook and other social media outlets, compared against media releases and circulated party list information from the Electoral Commission and online newspapers, television, radio or other websites. The Conservatives are a fundamentalist microparty and the evidence is there. There are some shallow comments about the frequent disavowals of church membership- as I've said in previous Politics and Religion columns, this doesn't rule out membership of fundamentalist 'parachurch' professional "Christian fellowships." He does argue that the Conservatives may obtain support from rural and provincial social conservatives, suspicious about non-European immigrants, older New Zealanders and (?) Pacific Island voters. I'd buy the first two options, but most New Zealanders live in metropolitan centres, although Craig is targeting older voters. But will Pacific Island voters leave Labour, when even Samoan-born Taito Philip Field couldn't convince them to do so, and when Sio William Su'a, Labour's Mangere MP, is an outspoken religious social conservative himself?

Stephen Mills (UMR Research) commendably warns that the Conservatives are a double-edged sword. They may well mobilise religious social conservative voters, but will they also mobilise social liberal cohorts and constituencies voting against that party, or against any centre-right coalition that includes them? As well as the centre-left, that may also include centre-right classical liberals who share progressive social values. Would they therefore vote for ACT, United Future or Matt Hooton's proposed classical liberal alternative party?

Darryl MacLachlan is also ambivalent about the Conservatives, noting that while Craig's flaky misogynist statements about a Rankin/Bennett catfight in Upper Harbour and description of 'schizophrenic' relationships between Labour and the Greens might trigger chiding from mental health advocacy groups, it is by no means given that elderly social conservative backlash voters will flock to him in sufficient numbers to offset revulsion from more mainstream New Zealand voters. His Dim Post column is excellent reading, short though it is.

Which is all very well. Mills and MacLachlan are prudent, although Audrey Young's column is just as useful, given its practical policy citations. Again, though, difficult questions are raised about the Conservative Party's actual compatibility with National, and whether Colin Craig and his entourage are merely "clip on" fiscal conservatives that mask their actual core (divisive) religious social conservative values. This suggests that as I've also suggested earlier, Christine Rankin may be pushed forward to deflect suspicions that their stealth social conservative worldview represents their core political agenda. Opinion polls still present divergent views about their ultimate prospects of political success, faced with new-found intensive media scrutiny.


Audrey Young: "Inside the Mind of Colin Craig" New Zealand Herald: 13.12.2013:

Tim Watkin: "The Colin Craig Factor and the Myth of Religion" Pundit: 12.12.2013:

Stephen Mills: "Conservative Party prospects" Stuff: 13.12.2013:

Bryce Edwards: "Some things that you may have missed" National Business Review: 28.12.2013:

Gordon Campbell: "The Blank Slate Boy: An Interview with Colin Craig" Werewolf:

Darryl MacLachlan: "I can see the Sea of Tranquility from my house" Dim Post: 17.12.2013:

Craig Young - 17th January 2014

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